For most of the last two years, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has been a rising star in the Democratic Party. That was cemented by his unexpectedly easy victory in the 2017 gubernatorial election over Republican Ed Gillespie. He won by over eight points after nearly every poll suggested a squeaker. That contest appeared to prove that Virginia had completed its transition to a blue state.
But Northam’s career appeared to come to a screeching halt on Friday, with the release of his montage from his 1984 medical school yearbook. Included was a picture depicting one man wearing blackface, and another man wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.
Within hours, Northam released a statement admitting that he was one of the people in that racist picture, and offered an unreserved apology for having taken part in it. He reiterated this in a video message posted to his official Twitter feed.
It was not enough to stem what rapidly became a bipartisan torrent of demands for his resignation. The line taken was that even if Northam had renounced any racist sentiment, appearing in a blatantly racist picture in medical school in 1984 was not a youthful indiscretion, but an egregious and disqualifying lapse in judgment. CNN’s Chris Cillizza summed up this chorus best.
You cannot be one of 50 governors in the country if you are unable–in your mid-20s–to exercise good judgment in a moment like that. Once you have lost the moral authority to stand before people and say credibly “I understand your hopes and dreams and fears and I will represent them,” then it’s time to go.
In the midst of this firestorm, right-wing elements have tried to knock the media for missing evidence dating back to Northam’s successful run for lieutenant governor in 2013 that would supposedly prove he was still a racist. What’s that, you ask? It centers around a clip from Northam’s debate with his Republican counterpart, E. W. Jackson. Watch here.
As WTKR in Norfolk wound up its coverage, Northam pointedly refused to shake Jackson’s hand. At the time, right-wingers tried to spin this as evidence that Northam was a closet racist. The video gained new momentum on the right-wing tubes when Ryan Saavedra of the Daily Wire got his hands on it.
But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Anyone who followed the 2013 lieutenant governor’s race would have completely understood why Northam rebuffed Jackson. After all, Jackson ran one of the most divisive campaigns in recent American history.
During that campaign, Jackson made nada, zip, zero effort to prove that he would be lieutenant governor for all Virginians if elected. He gained infamy for making horribly bigoted remarks about gays, saying they were “perverted,” “degenerate” and “frankly very sick people,” among other things. He also smeared Barack and Michelle Obama as pinkos, and accused then-President Obama of being a radical Islamist sympathizer at best.
As far as Jackson was concerned, though, we had no right to call him out on such pigweed. Earlier in 2013, he used an appearance on American Family Radio’s afternoon drive-time show, “Focal Point,” to wring his hands at how his critics inside and outside Virginia were reaming him for his hard-right social views. To hear Jackson talk, we had no right to call him out for his past comments because–wait for it–it was unconstitutional to attack him for anything he “believed or said as a minister.” No, this isn’t snark. Watch here.
News flash, E. W. When you speak on political matters, your political outlook is fair game, regardless of your vocation.
If I had been the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and I’d known about these outrageous comments from Jackson, I’d be hard pressed to shake his hand either. And I’m a black man. Those saying that Northam dissed Jackson forget that respect is earned. Ultimately, Northam cleaned Jackson’s clock, 55-44.
To be sure, Northam has some explaining to do. He now denies being in that racist picture, just hours after admitting he was in it. That raises an obvious question–why didn’t he object to that picture being on his page at the time? Remember, this was in 1984, a time when it was amply established that blackface and KKK regalia were completely unacceptable.
That being said, though, anyone who is trying to use that debate clip to prove that the media was asleep at the switch in 2013 is barking up the wrong tree. You simply cannot credibly use that clip as proof in and of itself that Northam still harbored racist sentiments. While Northam has some questions to answer, none of them involve that clip.
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